How Much Can You Demand?

There was a full house on hand last night at New York’s Housing Works Cafe and Bookstore for an Occupy Wall St. panel organized by n+1, Brooklyn’s hometown literary journal. The panel was larger than advertised, totaling seven in addition to moderator and n+1 progenitor Keith Gessen. A healthy mix of contributors were on board: there was the earnest, washed-up political wonk who’d been sleeping in Zucotti Park for a month now, the filmmaker who’d been downtown since the very first meeting, the SEIU representative and the education policy activist; there were youngs and olds, students and professionals, seasoned organizers and first time protesters.

The discussion all got started with a talk of origin stories after Gessen invited those who’d had the earliest involvement with the occupation to tell the audience of its genesis. These stories were already old hat for myself and others in the room who have obsessively followed OWS since its inception, but it turned out to be a valuable introduction nonetheless since—as we were to discover later during the Q&A period—there were a number of curious people in attendance still unfamiliar with what OWS is all about.

After this round of introductory niceties, in which panelists offered their take (or, in some cases, lack thereof) on how the movement came to be, what it meant and where it was going, Gessen showed a pair of videos seemingly arranged as a sort of point-counterpoint: first, a video of the October 25th occupation of New York City’s Panel for Educational Policy; and second, the now-viral footage of the October 26th arrest of a Citibank customer at her local branch shortly after having closed her account.

The videographer of the latter clip, who was seated on the panel, was invited to narrate the choppy footage, and her narration injected an eerie presence into a video much of the audience was already well familiar with, something that only served to reactivate that initial horror of watching public police forces step in on behalf of private business interests.


Gessen then invited the organizer of the Department of Education occupation—also sitting on the panel—to discuss those events at length, although the invitation came with a leading question: Gessen asked, in effect, to justify this thing he had found “disturbing.” And it was a fair question! Albeit one inexpertly answered: Bloomberg’s Panel for Educational Policy is a sham democracy, its members are unelected and unaccountable, mayoral appointments outnumber independent appointments, and therefore (therefore!) it was a meeting ripe for an occupation and a hostile takeover by the people’s mic. Members of the audience fidgeted, squirmed and pecked at iPhones as she hijacked the panel with a twenty-minute digression into the wonky minutiae of New York education policy and history; I fidgeted and squirmed at how her logic necessarily meant that every one of the tens of thousands of unelected and unaccountable executive staffers who head to Washington after we elect a president every four years should also be subject to precisely the same treatment (occupy next week’s FEC hearing! occupy the State Department! occupy the Supreme Court!).

The panel then followed with a lot of talk of the burning question: the subject of demands. There turned out to be so much to say on this subject that it dominated the rest of the evening right up until the Q&A period.

There would be no demands, the audience was reminded, most notably by Sarah Resnick, who offered up the boilerplate but still very eloquent explanation that to make demands of elected officials or of an established political system is to concede to either asking permission of those in power or to implicitly accepting to merely agitate within a system one deems improper, incorrect or otherwise less than preferable. And that’s a good thesis! The other panelists followed up with allusions to Mubarak (“The people in power always ask your demands first because they have the resources with which to pay you off”), standard issue conspiracy theorizing (“They’ve tried arresting us, they’ve tried scaring us off, they’ve tried pepper spraying us, and they’ve tried taking away our generators but now they’re running out of responses so their next tactic will be to turn us against ourselves and against each other”), and finally an effort to reconcile the demands of the movement at large (OWS as an umbrella makes no demands) with the demands of its constituent members (individuals and working groups of individuals can—and do!—make demands, demands that simply don’t reflect on OWS on the whole).

And it was when these individuals spoke, individually, of their individual demands that I began to worry, because despite how radical Resnick’s formulation is, the specific demands that did get tossed out by other panelists were, sadly, not so much: student loan reform, higher tax rates for billionaires, a job for everyone, and so on. And this is a problem! Because this very honorable formulation of why the movement cannot make demands (a refusal to cooperate with existing rulers and the structural status quo) was being trumpeted by people who will very happily talk out of the other side of their mouths in specifics that couldn’t possibly pertain more to existing economic and political structures and leadership (“We won’t make demands of our elected leaders because we don’t want to ask their permission, but we will ask our corporate leaders to give us all jobs”).

Moreover, the reasoning behind not making demands most certainly does not preclude making demands of our collective imagination, and yet the majority of these panelists demonstrated very little willingness to think big, to think long-term. On the contrary, contributors took pride in not discussing ends, because ends in themselves are as problematic as demands are in this complicated relationship between the movement and the status quo. The one occupier on the panel, Haywood Carey, who’d spent the past month sleeping in Zucotti, returned on numerous occasions to the merits of “small-‘d’ democracy,” “leaderless movements” and “consensus based decision making,” emphasizing them with sufficient frequency as to solicit at least a couple of visible eyerolls in my immediate vicinity. He even went so far as to suggest—confusing for a moment the temporal and the teleological—that were the movement’s end to come tomorrow it would already be a success, because now the people were talking, the people were busy doing their small-‘d’ democracy.

In a twist on the old Machiavellian traditional, the means had become the ends, and in the process he exposed two enormous problems the movement faces.

First, while its refusal to make any specific demands is admirable, that stand becomes problematic when a movement’s constituent members demonstrate a worrisome lack of courage to imagine any alternatives or to conceive of the mere possibility of making demands outside of existing political and economic structures. Only one panelist last night even got close to enunciating an alternative, when Meaghan Linick, the videographer behind the Citibank arrest, mentioned that she and her friends, ideally, would conceive of the movement’s end as a more equitable system fully re-architected from the ground-up (she did not, unfortunately, have a chance to go into specifics).

Secondly, the movement faces an enormous organizational and operational hurdle in the way it fetishizes its working groups and horizontal structure and lack of leadership and rejection of narratives, because this granular, piecemeal approach not only limits the movement’s prospects but necessitates that whatever change it effects remain local in three dimensions: the geographic, the chronological, and the ideological. It will only ever—by its own insistence!—make baby steps; it won’t (and can’t!) be starting the revolution. And this exposes a massive internal inconsistency, because a movement so committed to not making demands of the status quo because of its Bartleby-esque refusal to participate has also imposed an arbitrary upper bound not only on what it can accomplish but on where, exactly, and in what sort of world it may be accomplished.

Now one of the great promises of the Occupy movement (that is, at least, for me, someone who willingly admits to projecting his radical leftism on a movement at least nominally uninterested in having any of it) is where it stands in the historical trajectory of post-’68 organizing, a sort of soothing synthesis to the thesis/antithesis of the now-clichéd fracturing of the Seventies left and, later, the violent ineffectuality of the G8 protests. Here now is (at last!) a peaceful movement offering a uniquely simple, comprehensible and, at least according to public polling, widely agreeable message: the problem is money. Which is a lovely and long-awaited contrast to the history of the left over the last four decades, a time defined by internal battles among leftists to determine which issue would sit atop the movement’s pantheon rather than uniting against the material conditions in place that adversely affected all of them.

And yet from what I saw last night—and, frankly, what I’ve seen from a lot of the movement thus far—the majority of these panelists were content to just go through the same old motions, to patch the leaks on the sinking ship until the next time the moneyed elite slowly punch holes in the hull once again.

Slavoj Žižek editorialized in The Guardian recently that “one of the great dangers the protesters face is that they will fall in love with themselves.” I was reminded of those words last night, worried that this danger had already been realized as panelist after panelist congratulated either the movement’s commitment to “little-‘d’ democracy” or its unwillingness to issue demands. The movement has already proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s got a great short game, but I worry those tactics can’t survive the long haul (not to mention the fast-approaching winter). I worry if a group of people generally either unwilling or unable to think beyond the status quo can ever drastically alter it. Mostly, though, I just worry that this uniquely and enormously promising moment will go to waste because a movement so busy falling in love with itself for being horizontal and leaderless will forever remain a movement in which no one person speaks as a representative—and, as a result, will ultimately remain a movement in which anyone who speaks at all speaks representatively—because by and large I’m not convinced the representatives I’ve seen so far could answer the only real question: “What is to be done?”

Matt Langer is a technologist and writer living in Brooklyn who really just wishes Keith Gessen and Astra Taylor had talked more last night.

Photo by Timothy Krause.